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Psst! Wanna buy an Oscar?

March 03, 2006 17:46 IST

You win an Academy Award. You make a speech, walk off the stage with your statue, bring it home, and you put it on the mantle. Very cool. But what if someday you wanted to--or worse, needed to--sell it. How much could you get?

Oscars: Full Coverage

Exactly $1, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the annual awards show. Since 1950, the Academy has required Oscar winners to sign an agreement stipulating that neither they -- nor their heirs -- will sell their statuettes without first offering to sell them back to the Academy for a buck.

Refuse to sign, and the Academy keeps the statuette. "They're not tchotchkes to be bought off of a shelf," sniffs an academy spokesman.

But, despite the academy's disapproval, that is exactly what's happening. Industry experts speculate that 150 Oscars have been sold since the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 -- half of which are likely gray-market sales involving post-1950 statuettes. And those 8.5-pound golden statuettes are fetching as much as $1.5 million on the open market. Prices are lower for post-1950 Oscars because they can't be sold again as easily, but a big-name Oscar rarely goes for less than $60,000.

Historically, the academy has tried to stifle the free market in Oscar sales through blunt legal intimidation. Take the case of Cyrus Todd, the grandson of late producer Michael Todd. In 1989, Cyrus Todd found himself nearly broke, so he reportedly decided to sell his grandfather's 1956 Best Picture Oscar for Around The World In 80 Days.

For help, Todd turned to Malcolm Willits, a movie-memorabilia expert and owner of the Collector's Bookstore in Hollywood, Calif. But a Los Angeles court granted the academy a temporary restraining order on Willits' auction just days before it was scheduled to take place. Weeks later, the restraining order was upheld, and Willits was issued a permanent injunction.

Yet, according to legal experts, it's not even clear how watertight the academy's agreement is. "The one-page agreement that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences enters into with the recipients of Oscar awards raises enough tricky questions of property and contract law to pique the interest of property and contract scholars," says Richard A Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Adds Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School, "It may well be a binding contract, but it doesn't say anything about damages. The contract isn't broken until the statuette is, say, sold -- at which point there's not much to be done against the seller, since he or she no longer owns it.

The only question would be what damages the academy could collect--the value it could have itself sold the statue for? The literal value of the statuette, which apparently the academy can crank out like the Treasury minting dollar bills, minus $1?"

Some collectors are refusing to be cowed. Mario Cortesi, a Swiss movie buff, has purchased several Oscars to add to his collection of film memorabilia. His first purchase -- a 1951 Best Picture Oscar for An American in Paris for $16,000 from the Collector's Bookstore -- was made in 1989.

Though he is reluctant to divulge the specifics of his collection, he says he bought the statuettes because of his interest in the history of filmmaking. "I bought the Oscars for myself," he says. "They are not an investment, and they are not on display."

Sotheby's and Christie's have so far avoided auctioning off newer Oscars, but both houses are doing a brisk business in older statuettes. In June 1999, Sotheby's sold the 1939 Best Picture Oscar for Gone With The Wind to pop star Michael Jackson for a record price of $1.5 million. And, in recent years, Christie's has sold four pre-1950 Oscars for a combined take of more than $1.5 million.

The academy's ban has induced strange economic behavior from some very famous people. In July 2001, DreamWorks Animation co-founder Steven Spielberg -- who has two Best Director Oscars of his own, for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan -- purchased Bette Davis' 1938 Best Actress Oscar for Jezebel for $578,000, then returned it to the academy.

The academy promptly locked up the statuette in its vaults; it rarely displays old Oscars. Other celebrities who have bought Oscars and returned them to the academy include actor Kevin Spacey (who paid $157,000 for George Stoll's 1945 Oscar for Anchors Aweigh) and movie mogul Lew Wasserman.

Refreshingly, certain famous buyers are treating the statuettes for what they are: movie memorabilia. Magician David Copperfield keeps the 1943 Best Director Oscar for Casablanca, purchased in 2003 for $232,000, in his bedroom.

Though he says he both understands and respects the position of the Academy, "Objects should be where they do the most good." Copperfield says the Oscar would do more good for him -- the symbol of excellence is a source of inspiration for his own work -- than it would in a closet filled with other statuettes at the academy.

Amen.

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Lacey Rose, Forbes